National Hispanic Heritage Month is a time when America recognizes and celebrates the important pieces that Hispanic Americans contribute to the mosaic of our nation. The month also celebrates the personal freedom and self-determination most Hispanic Americans or their ancestors sought when they first came to the U.S. My parents, who are fifth-generation Hispanic Americans, taught me to appreciate these freedoms and other core American values – among them, the promise of equal opportunity and the right to pursue gainful employment.
As a Hispanic American, and as a person with a disability, these labor force and civil rights issues are very close to my heart. And they are taking on increased importance as President Obama and his Administration work to create jobs and make today’s economy work for all Americans. I’m proud to be part of a team that is committed to Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis’s vision of “Good Jobs for Everyone.” Secretary Solis, who is also Hispanic American, is leading us in a wide range of efforts to get people across the nation back to work, and to ensure that they have an opportunity to participate in the economic recovery.
Today, Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in the U.S., and we represent one of every three new members of the workforce. Hispanics, however, are more likely than other Americans to work in low wage jobs, and they often have experience with disability. Lack of health insurance, the prevalence of acquired disabilities for workers in high risk jobs, and the disproportionate rate of health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension in the Hispanic community, are all factors that contribute to our population's increasing rate of disability.
Disability is an emerging issue for Hispanic entrepreneurs, as well. Close to 3 million Hispanic-owned businesses now generate almost $400 billion in annual revenues according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We in the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) believe strongly that disability issues must figure into these businesses’ plans for success. That’s why we launched a new Labor Department initiative called Add Us In.
The Add Us In initiative is designed to identify and develop strategies to increase employment opportunities within the small business community for people with disabilities. Given the level of growth in the small and minority-owned business community, one of the high-priority goals of the Add Us In effort is to build national and local networks of experts skilled in connecting small employers with the underutilized talent pool that people with disabilities comprise. In addition, it is working to develop the capacity of these businesses to employ more of us people with disabilities.
Hispanic business owners are uniquely poised to tap into the labor pool of Hispanics with disabilities while also serving the needs of customers with disabilities. An understanding of cultural issues, such as the resistance of some Hispanics to seek help outside the family, can enable Hispanic business owners to find proactive ways to provide accommodations that increase workers' productivity.
Similarly, by making their place of business accessible to all customers, they can meet the needs of the community as well as the needs of people with disabilities and their families. After all, we in the disability community make up the third largest market segment in the U.S. Add in our families, friends and associates, and you get a trillion dollars in purchasing power. As with any customer segment, one of the best ways to tap into this disability market is to ensure it is represented in your workforce.
Of course, effecting change in the business community means educating employers and reversing stigma related to disability employment issues. ODEP spearheads a variety of efforts to promote the hiring, retention and advancement of people with disabilities, including October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the Campaign for Disability Employment. In fact, the Campaign offers a number of disability employment resources in Spanish that may be useful to your organization via the website, www.ustedquepuedehacer.org.
It pleases me that our nation benefits from an increasingly diverse workforce – one that offers a number of different perspectives and rich ideas to American businesses. An important dimension of this diversity is disability, which cuts across all identity markers. I understand this first-hand, because in addition to being Hispanic, I am also a woman, a person who is blind, and a member of the LGBT community.
It’s important for the nation’s employers and workers to remove disability from the “special shelf” and incorporate it into larger workplace diversity efforts. After all, diversity leads to innovation, and by fostering a work culture respectful of individual differences, employers benefit from varied perspectives on how to confront challenges and achieve success.
That’s what Hispanic Heritage Month means to me. It reminds us that America's future success requires us to capitalize on the talents of all segments of the population – both in life and in the workplace.
To learn more about these issues, visit www.dol.gov/odep.
Kathleen Martinez is the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.